Historian and sociologist Oksana Mikheyeva on why the Donbas intelligentsia is silent and what business in this region wants
The Donbas abounds in not just coal and steel, but in artists, businessmen, scholars and researchers. However, their number has yet failed to translate into quality, since the region remains in caught in the ideological and economic grip of the current ruling clan – the junction of crime and former party functionaries. The Ukrainian Week spoke about the specific features of this stagnation with Oksana Mikheyeva, a scholar, sociologist and historian from Donetsk.
UW: In the Donbas, contrary to established stereotypes, the number of technical and cultural intelligentsia, as well as business, which is not necessarily “regional”, is quite significant. However, they are silent and making absolutely no effort to actively fight the current system. Why do you think this is?
– In my view, there are several reasons for the absence of a visible active position of the Donbas intelligentsia. Remember that a large portion of this intelligentsia has already moved to Kyiv – this happened in several waves, and not only in recent times. So it’s possible to see quite a few representatives of the Donetsk both among the active participants of the EuroMaidan as well as in the Kyiv mass media, business and political spheres. And in one way or another, they present their vision of everything that is going on.
Apart from that, people fear losing all that if they manifest their position openly.This largely pertains to jobs. Losing one under current conditions is a catastrophe for residents in this region. To have a better idea of the situation, note that small and medium-sized business has never taken off in Donbas. Most of the workers here are engaged in rigidly structured hierarchy business and work in large corporations or enterprises, so they fall under their disciplinary influence. Loyalty has become the most important quality required of current employees. Even professionalism has become secondary.
UW: This is a kind of vicious circle. People are scared, so they keep silent. As a result, they have no hope of changes.
This is because of another specific aspect that has emerged here. I describe it as “aquarium” mindset. By this I mean the expert environment closing in on itself. There are good reflective and critical speeches at many regional roundtables, conferences, seminars and so on – and then… nothing. They gather to talk among themselves and are happy to find like-minded people within the framework of one aquarium. We are talking about a limited number of people, who know one another and consider such publicity to be perfectly adequate. Last but not least, this is related to the absence of at least some result of such speeches, and activity as a whole. Residents of the Donbas often face just two options: take decisive action and gain nothing, or do nothing and have the very same result. The combination of the feeling that there is no point in any activity and the mindset that is increasingly commercial-oriented produces a new generation of actors, ready to implement the directives of any client. Also, in my view, the low level of trust and, accordingly, solidarity, is very important. At present, these are not specific features in Donbas, they are characteristic for the country as a whole, which clearly reflect the results of the annual research conducted by the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Let me give you a specific example. An average SME owner who could potentially have supported the EuroMaidan realizes that his/her absence from work for a month will essentially ruin his/her business. He/she could be in solidarity with someone else, thus allocating economic and civil responsibility. However, for the most part, this is not taking place. So Donetsk’s supporters of the EuroMaidan confine themselves to financial aid and work to create the “image” of its existence in Donetsk. There is also an internal conflict, related to the lack of rational models for coming out of the crisis, which would take into account the interests of “all” Ukraines. This is because, in spite of being aware of the depth of the current crisis, a representative of the Donbas intelligentsia does not find himself or herself in nationalist projects. I don’t support the idea of “two Ukraines” which is, in essence, the result of a political technology that geographically divides Ukraine into stereotypic Banderite and Donestk parts, is always fuelled and used to shape the necessary electoral sentiments.
Another important thing is that, for a long time, political campaigns in Ukraine have been built in such a way, that we don’t elect the best of the best, but the least of all evils. Accordingly, the awareness that those who are in power are bad is multiplied by the thinking that others are even worse, or they don’t exist at all. And if you don’t see an alternative, what is the point of going into battle?
UW: How would you describe the Donbas mindset, if you walk away from the Party of Regions’ separatist myths of “Donbas identity”?
I wouldn’t say that the “Donbas identity” was made up by the Party of Regions. As far as I am concerned, the roots of this myth go back to the Soviet cult of homeland, which in the Donbas version included a heroic status of work and workers (first and foremost – coalminers and steel workers), created the feeling of a special path, the unique historical fate of this region (with revolutionary nuances) and finally took shape in the same local patriotism that remains a component of the mentality of the average Donbas citizen to this day. This identity is quite stable. Research confirms that throughout the years of independence, the local regional identity is dominant among the people of Donetsk. By the way, at present, it is undergoing an interesting revival, transformed by the pre-revolutionary concept of privately-owned industry in combination with the “Welsh identity” (Donetsk was founded by John Hughes, a Welsh engineer and businessman. The city was originally called Yuzivka or Hughesivka after him, but was renamed to Stalino in 1942 and to Donetsk in 1961 – Ed.), layered over this Soviet concept of Donbas. The latter is very noticeable, judging by local periodicals and a range of sites dedicated to the region.
However, on the awareness level of the average Donbas resident, I would not treat the Donbas identity as a separatist one. And this is also connected to the homeland cult, which was logically built into the concept of the large homeland – the USSR. Accordingly, even the current dominance of regional identity is not evidence of the desire to separate from the bigger homeland - Ukraine. Separatist trends are manifested when it is in the interests of political and oligarchic circles, while according to research, in a range of questions, average people demonstrate support of Ukrainian unity.
UW: And what about the criminal element in the “Donbas identity”?
The understanding of criminal mindset cannot be complete without turning to the Soviet past. It’s probably a fairly well-known fact, that during the Soviet era, the Donbas was a region, where enterprises hired former criminals. So everyone gradually got used to living in an environment, where there are quite a few people (20% according to unofficial Soviet statistics), who experienced the Soviet penitentiary system. Getting to know people with a criminal record as, say, your neighbour, changes your perception of such people. And it changes your perception of whether the person remains a criminal after repentance in jail. I can give you an example from my personal experience. I made an interesting discovery when I was writing my PhD thesis on Crime and Crime Prevention in the Donbas in 1921–1928. During my research, I had to look at dictionaries of criminal slang and unexpectedly realised that the meaning of most of these words had been familiar to me since childhood, because this was the language I used with my friends. And this is only one illustration of the extent to which these worlds – criminal and ordinary – intersect here. Add to this one more contradiction: on the one hand, you’re talking about a person with prison experience, and on the other – according to Soviet myths, the person is the hero – the miner or steel-worker, who feeds the prosperity of the entire country with his hard work. All of this gives rise to a different attitude towards a person with a prison record. This attitude is not criminal mindset. And for those who have criminal traits, the success of such a person is the effective strategy of overcoming social deprivation.
UW: To a certain point of its development, the Donbas was reminiscent of the USA in many instances – an original adventurous, but promising environment was formed there, made up of criminals and at the same time, the most active and determined people, as well as young and energetic capital and vast natural resources. Now, the region has completely lost its innovative potential, having transformed into a nature reserve of homo sovieticus. What caused this and do we have a chance to recover that image?
In addition to loyalty of the average resident of the Donbas, caused by dependence on large corporations and salary, this is related to the feeling of complete defencelessness in a country that is corrupt to the core. In Ukraine, the “you pay me and I do something for you” relations have been in place for a long time, not regarded as a crime. They have shaped the corrupt nature of everyday interaction in all spheres. This minimised the feeling of social justice and gave rise to the certainty that only a person who has money is right and strong. The awareness of such a state of affairs puts a stop to people’s actions before they have even started. Another component is the question – what should I do? I think that that the people whose economic interests are concentrated in the Donbas understand full well that we are already facing inevitable fundamental changes. They include a range of steps to restructure enterprises and introduce the latest technology. And at the same time, it is clear that this will also have significant social impact, since it will free a significant number of people, for whom the issue of job placement is a matter of survival. We need real creative economic and social projects. These are hampered by the state the modern Ukraine exists in. First and foremost, this has to be a rational scenario, directed towards real economic development, because economic issues are the ones that can easily motivate and join the Donbas together around the building of a new Ukrainian state.
Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels began withdrawing from a village in the disputed Donbas region on Saturday, one of a series of measures that could pave the way for a summit between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany